The first time I had contact with Indiana Jones was in 1993 when I taped the Friday Night Movie on TV2 and watched it first thing on Saturday morning. It was The Last Crusade, and I loved it. I immediately became interested in archaeology, or at least the idea of archaeology. I went to my school library, got out a book on ancient treasures and read it from cover to cover. Later that year I watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was creepy, with all that ripping out of hearts. I loved the minecart chase and the rope-bridge climax. Raiders of the Lost Ark came soon after that, capping the trilogy for me in reverse order. And there was even the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series.
After many years of watching and re-watching these films on my worn VHS tapes, I come to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There's a massive level of anticipation. I haven't been this excited since The Phantom Menace was released in 1999.
Fans will should reassured right from the start - the retro Paramount logo is just like it was in the 80s. It's clear that this film has been made as a slice of nostalgia, featuring many references to the previous films. But it's the new stuff that's most exciting. I loved the 50s setting, in the age of Atomic testing and communist blacklisting. After opening with Elvis' Hound Dog on the soundtrack as a car full of carefree students pursues a military convoy along a Nevada desert road, we soon turn up at the infamous Area 51. An early highpoint comes when Jones escapes into a mock town, set up for a nuclear bomb test, moments before detonation. It's a fresh idea for the franchise, and a welcome one.
Shia LaBeouf is great as flick-knife wielding 'greaser' Mutt Williams, who values his motorcycle more than his education. It's not hard to imagine this character reprised in further films, perhaps even on a solo outing. Cate Blanchett's villainous psychic Russian scientist is hammy in true pulp fashion, but Ray Winstone’s piggish Cockney archeologist could have been used more. John Hurt plays a role that's like Ben Gunn from Treasure Island – in short, a babbling fool. Harrison Ford proves he can still play an action hero. He makes for an older, wiser Indiana Jones - more world-weary and melancholic.
But (and this is a most unwelcome 'but') there is something ultimately underwhelming about this film. I've been struggling to put my thoughts into words for several days.
Have I become a film snob? In the years since discovering these Jones movies, have I moved away from a love of these serial adventure blockbusters, and replaced it with obscure arty nonsense? Has the negative opinion on creator George Lucas and the harsh treatment of his Star Wars prequels clouded my judgement? Have I simply outgrown the target demographic these films are aimed at?
In fact, I'd say that the precise reason for my uneasy feeling about the fourth Indiana Jones adventure is due to far too many moments feeling downright fake, e.g. the vine swinging and the fridge escape. The frequent dives in a vehicle over waterfalls just go beyond unbelievable; it's as if Indiana Jones has actually become invincible – he's hardly even gasping for air when they surface. Stunts are only impressive when we know that real people are actually performing them. Spielberg seems to have underestimated the audience in this respect.
The pulpy cliffhanger action works best when pulled off in the retro style. The motorcycle chase through Marshall College, as Dr Jones is pursued by Russian spies, is probably the best sequence. Such a feat could actually be pulled off in real life, giving it a credibility that the CGI sequences lack.
This CG-specific complaint comes, of course, from a hugely demanding Indiana Jones fan. To be fair, Crystal Skull is packed to the brim with fun and action, and should be noted for revealing a more mature side to Dr Jones. I had fun, and I've already seen it twice.
But ultimately, and sadly, I have to admit that Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is not quite the brilliant adventure I was hoping for. The story, characters, locations, music and direction are great, and the 50s Cold War setting is terrific, but the frequent trips into over-the-top territory sadly mean this adventure is flawed. In attempt to wow those of us who have 'seen it all', Spielberg has tried to up the ante and has pushed our suspension of disbelief to breaking point.
Reviewed by Andrew Hedley